5 ways brands can use design thinking to stand out at SXSW

Droga5's executive design director critiques this year's activations in Austin

This isn’t news to SXSW attendees, but it has become an increasing challenge for brands to stand out as the festival scales and the cacophony of brand activations and experiences compete for our attention. Most just raise their voices, hoping to be heard above everyone else, but when everyone raises their voice, it just becomes a loud, overwhelming din.

Let’s define the landscape first: Everyone and every brand wants to get noticed and remembered. Our time is precious, and squandering it on unfulfilling experiences leaves an even worse taste in the mouth. Realistically, a person can attend two key things a day, so they choose them wisely. People are there because they want to learn and discover new things or uses of technology. And people like me are looking at your experience through the lens of a marketer — we will experience it from a more critical perspective.

What can a brand do to implement design thinking to create more meaningful experiences and alleviate some of these pain points?

Make it easy to navigate
It seems like surreptitious encounters or discoveries are things of SXSW past. I saw a lot of things I didn’t want to see, and wished I’d seen several things I didn’t know about until they had already happened. At least 72,000 people were going up, down and around every day. The festival has increasingly become about efficiently moving people from place to place, and your brand’s ability to design clear wayfinding will position you as an asset. One ambitious method: Make your physical location a landmark. Many people forget the Eiffel Tower and Space Needle were originally built for fairs. Use highly visible, clear signage to make clear what’s happening and when it’s happening at your physical location.

Align the hype with the product
Loud is not better than better. There were several experiences that left me feeling, well, nothing, or less than nothing after it was hyped up and down all the streets and across various media channels. When I come into an experience expecting my life to be changed and it’s simply an okay experience, it leaves a lingering negative feeling. Dieter Rams summarizes this by saying "Good design is honest." We all know when we are being manipulated by a brand, and nobody wants that. Be honest about what you have to offer.

Have a purpose beyond telling me about you
Add value to my life. While often appreciated and needed, just offering up food and alcohol as your ‘brand experience’ is a bit of a cop-out. If you are at SXSW to sell phones, or whatever, it’s cool if you point out the key selling points of the latest device. But could you also add some value to my life? How can it be useful and not just entertaining? Is there some way to use your products to improve my experience at SXSW? Lyft let me ride around pretty much for free all weekend. Airbnb sent me an email about what was happening at SXSW and how they could support me during my stay, in addition to providing me with a house for the four days I was there.

Good design is better than more
How much do I need to know, and how well are you communicating it? And how does that balance against how much can you tell me? There are rules for communicating that seem to get thrown out the window when brands arrive at SXSW — the cardinal one being that good is always better than more. What is the least amount that is absolutely essential? Get rid of everything else. This doesn’t mean reducing everything to black and white, but it does mean considering why something is there and why your brand is there.

Be environmentally conscious
In 2016, this should go without saying, yet it bears repeating. Designing your activation to conserve resources and eliminate physical and visual pollution should be at the top of everybody’s list at this stage in the game, especially in an industry that creates excessive waste with every new upgrade. I saw very little communication about how brands were addressing this issue at any of the activations this year, and it’s something a large majority of the population cares deeply about. It’s not just about designing for the moment when you interact with your audience; it should be about how you are making their entire world a better place.

The opportunity for physical interaction between a brand and engaged, excited people is what makes SXSW unique. Don’t squander my time and your brand’s money on an experience I can have by going to your website or store, or by telling me something your marketing has already told me. Design an experience that’s unique and an inspiration for festival attendees, and that will make SXSW a better festival. I mean, people wanted to see Obama so badly, they had to have a lottery to get in. Can you imagine if your brand had that problem?

Rob Trostle is executive design director with Droga5.

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